It’s not as if the colt didn’t show ability from the start. He did, but there were issues that needed attention before his 48-year-old Irish-bred trainer, David Carroll, had him where he wanted him. Carroll knows how to get the best from a good horse. Working six years for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, Carroll was the regular exercise rider of Easy Goer among other Phipps family notables.
Denis Of Cork is a Florida-bred son of Harlan’s Holiday, from the Unbridled mare, Unbridled Girl, and was a $250,000 two-year-old purchase by Mr. and Mrs. William Warren last March. But Denis emerged from the breeze-up sale with bucked shins, a common two-year-old ailment that responds best to time, and that’s what Carroll gave him.
“Not only did he take a long time to come around but our [Churchill] barn was under quarantine after one of our horses came out of Keeneland sick,” said Carroll. “We were shut down but that probably didn’t matter. We wouldn’t have run [Denis] any sooner, anyway.”
When Carroll began preparing the colt, he worked him in company with an established stablemate, Blackberry Road, and Denis more than held his own. Finally, the colt was ready and Denis debuted on the final Saturday of the Churchill meet. He won that 7-furlong debut in dramatically impressive fashion.
“Yes, I was surprised by his performance. I’m not the kind that has to win first time out. I told Calvin [Borel] just let him break, settle, and then finish up with him.
“But when I saw him make that [5-path sweeping] move on the turn, I thought he was going to run big. He really got to running and was very impressive. Ian [Wilkes, assistant to Carl Nafzger] came up to me afterwards and said he was surprised, too.”
When Churchill closed, Carroll shipped his horses to Fair Grounds, a surface the trainer holds in high regard, but Denis had “lost his way,” the trainer said. “He took a while to settle in and I had to give him time to regroup. Fortunately, Mr. Warren is very patient, always wants to do what’s best for the horse.”
Finally, after five weeks, the colt began to pick his head up, was doing well, but not as good as immediately before the debut. So, while not at the very top of his game, he made a second start, his first around two turns, in an allowance race on a sloppy track.
“He never trained well on an off track,” Carroll said. “Calvin later said he was slippin’ and slidin’ all over the place during the warmup. Before the race I told Calvin just keep him out of trouble, keep him in a rhythm.”
Borel kept Denis out of trouble, way out in the middle of the Fair Grounds backstretch. But in order to get first run, Borel moved sooner than he wanted, and the colt struggled even more, but they won anyway. “Throw this race out,” Borel told Carroll.
“He wasn’t even blowing when he came back,” Carroll explained. “It was like he was saying I’ll do next time what I didn’t do today. And he came out of the race a monster, ready to move forward.”
Borel couldn’t commit to Denis Of Cork for his next start, the Southwest Stakes. But Robby Albarado came to the barn, worked the colt, and Carroll did the Cajun two-step, replacing Borel with Albarado for Monday’s Grade 3. Denis Of Cork might have been 2-for-2 but had no graded earnings, commonly needed to enter the Derby starting gate.
Denis was ready to run, but was he ready to ship again, to a new track and a new surface? “He slept well, ate well, settled into his surroundings and I thought he’s growing up right in front of my eyes,” Carroll said.
“Our game plan was simple, I told Robby it looked like there was a lot of speed so just settle and get him in his rhythm.
“But I was so mad going down the backstretch,” recalled Carroll. “The leader ran off with Julien [Leparoux] and I wanted a contested pace.” Fortunately, and surprisingly, Denis Of Cork jumped into the race early, racing closer to the pace than expected.
“He was there,” the rider told the trainer afterward, “and not because of me.”
At the end of the Southwest, nothing had changed. Denis Of Cork was still undefeated, only this time he finished first twice. One mile races at Oaklawn Park end at the sixteenth pole, but when Denis reached the true finish line “no one passed him.”
So, is Denis Of Cork good enough to win the Derby?
“All a trainer can do is put him in a position, physically and mentally,” said Carroll. “I only have 22 horses so I have time to observe him, his disposition, his walk, the way he puts his head in the feed tub. He looks to have an air of confidence about him now, and he’s put on some weight. Hopefully he’s stays healthy, keeps improving.
“He’s like a big, tall, high school kid and I think his best races and more improvement are ahead of him,” the trainer said. “There’s still a couple of things we need to work on,” Albarado advised.
“He‘s so lightly raced, he needs experience,” said the trainer who also guides the Derby destiny of a talented, albeit unlucky, Blackberry Road. “We’ll run [Blackberry Road] back in the Louisiana Derby and Robby will ride him,“ replacing Borel. “We just want to change the luck up a little bit.
“But [Denis Of Cork] will run in the Rebel and we’ll keep our options open after that. I’ve done my babying with him. Now he’s going to have to go out and run, be a racehorse.”